What position group on the Dallas Cowboys has formed the heart and soul of the team’s identity these last few years? It has to be the offensive line. They have been the best position group on the team since Zack Martin was drafted in 2014. They echo back to the O-line that paved the way for Emmitt Smith and the Triplets to win three Super Bowl’s in four seasons.
The Dallas O-line features three of the best offensive linemen in the game.
- Tyron Smith, drafted in 2011, is the elder statesman of the group at just 26 years old (with six seasons in the NFL). He is considered one of the top left tackles in the game. He’s been to four consecutive Pro Bowls, and made first team All-Pro in 2014 and 2016. He is second on the Cowboys with 67 points of Approximate Value (only Jason Witten, who has played 14 seasons, is ahead of him).
- Travis Frederick arrived in 2013. Sports Illustrated ranked him the NFLs’ best center before 2016, when Frederick earned his first All-Pro nod. He’s also been to three straight Pro Bowls. He has 41 AV in four years.
- Zack Martin arrived in 2014, the year DeMarco Murray set a Cowboys single season rushing mark with 1845 yards. Martin was an instant first team All-Pro, and was again in 2016. He’s been to the Pro Bowl all three years in the league. He has 35 AV in three years.
No team can match these three first-round studs on the offensive line.
But what about the other two slots - right tackle and left guard?
- Doug Free was the true elder statesman of the group until he retired this year. Drafted in 2007, and injured the following year, Free didn’t take over a full-time role until 2010. From then through 2016, he missed only five games at tackle, and racked up 53 AV over those seven seasons. Pro Football Focus ranked him 40th among tackles last season, claiming he surrendered eight sacks (out of 28) and was not as good in his run blocking.
- Ron Leary started the year on the bench, but took over in week four after La’el Collins went down with a foot injury that ended his season. Pro Football Focus felt that he upgraded the guard position, finishing as PFF’s 21st ranked guard. He didn’t give up a single sack. Leary also anchored the left guard spot in 2014 when Murray was setting Cowboys’ rushing records.
With Free retired, and Leary signed to a four-year, $36 million dollar free agent deal with Denver, the Cowboys have two mainstays to replace. Can they do it? The Cowboys are counting on two guys to not only replace Free and Leary on the line, but to bring more youth and athleticism to the Cowboys dominant front.
Going into the offseason, most expected La’el Collins to return to the left guard duties he had grown into since replacing Leary in the fifth game of the 2015 season. Yet the word now is that Dallas is going to try him out at the right tackle spot vacated by Doug Free. Collins is excited about the potential move.
“Oh, man, it’s awesome actually,” Collins said during the team’s 13th annual Taste of the NFL to tackle childhood hunger. “I actually forgot how good it felt to be out on the edge, to kind of be out there on an island. Right now we’re not doing too much, just kind of working plays against the air. That’s about it. But it feels good.”
Why would the Cowboys consider this move? One reason is that Collins was the best tackle at pass protection his last year in college, according to PFF.
Collins excelled in pass protection at left tackle in his final season in college, giving up just four total pressures on 312 pass-blocking snaps, good for a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 99.0.
That kind of play led most draft experts to rank Collins as a sure first-rounder for the 2015 draft, until misfortune left him out of the draft entirely. He certainly has tremendous athleticism for a big man.
Another reason to move Collins outside is that the Cowboys other options may not have the same potential upside. Chaz Green, whom Dallas drafted in the third round in 2015, has not been able to stay healthy. He came into the NFL off some injuries in college, then missed his rookie year having hip surgery. In 2016, he earned the swing tackle job, and played well when Tyron Smith needed time off for his own back problems, but then missed the end of the year, needing back surgery of his own.
With Green’s health a constant concern, the Cowboys signed Byron Bell, a well-traveled tackle/guard. Bell did a mixed job at tackle for Carolina his first four years in the NFL, then moved on to Tennessee and started 16 games. He missed last season with an ankle injury he suffered in pre-season. PFF didn’t like him as a free agent in 2015, rating him the worst among available tackles.
Collins had his own struggles in 2016 — PFF gave him the worst grade among left guards in the opener against the Giants, but he’s had another year of weight training and working with the Cowboys’ staff. Will it be enough?
Cooper, like the three All-Pro Cowboys offensive linemen, was selected by Arizona with the seventh pick in the first round, after an impressive career at North Carolina. Unfortunately, in the third pre-season game, he broke his left fibula, and was placed on injured reserve for the season. Slow to return from his injury, and with new injuries nagging him, he was passed over for the starting job his second year, getting in only two games near the end of the year. He started nine games in his third season before another injury sidelined him. Arizona planned to move him to center in 2016, but instead traded him and a draft pick to New England for Chandler Jones. Another preseason injury with New England let a competitor pass him on the depth chart, and he was released in October. Cleveland picked him up, where he started three games before being waived again. Dallas picked him up in January, likely because they coveted him the year he came out of college and wanted to gauge first-hand what kind of skill level he had. In the offseason, they signed him to a modest one-year deal.
What do the Cowboys have in Jonathan Cooper? According to PFF, Cooper produced a career-best grade of 73.2 in 2016. That sounds reasonable, but he seems at least as injury prone as Chaz Green.
Is there any chance that: 1) Cooper can remain healthy for a complete season, and 2) regain the form that led him to being drafted higher than any of the All-Pro offensive linemen currently on the Cowboys? Those are big ifs.
If Cooper doesn’t fill the void at left guard, perhaps Byron Bell will move inside instead of putting Collins back there. One would think the Cowboys would prioritize finding the best right tackle, and then filling their left guard slot with the best of who is left. That should be Cooper if he remains healthy.
Together, can Collins and Cooper keep the Cowboys’ offensive line humming? That is burning question number 4.